Alan Clawley on the latest controversy to hit the New Street station redevelopment.
It might be thought that architects do what they do simply for money. And its true that if they want to see their dreams get off the drawing board they must work for wealthy clients, whether they’re individuals corporations or government bodies. But when architects resign from a job, as Alejandro Zaero-Polo has recently done in walking away from the New Street Gateway project, they usually do so on principle.
The crunch usually comes when a client demands that the architect changes the original design beyond a certain limit. Architects are fiercely possessive when it comes to their creations. If their latest building is likely to be below their best their self-regard, public reputation and future income will all suffer.
Money is usually the cause of the rift, and that’s because architects tend to believe that good, original design costs more than generic, run-of the mill stuff. When costs are cut, they assume, quality will inevitably suffer. The case of the Central Library bears this out. The architect, John Madin, was known to have wanted Portland Stone or Travertine for the cladding, but the City Architect, representing the client, the City Council, insisted on cheaper pre-cast concrete. Twenty years later the failure of many of the panels shows that quality was indeed sacrificed to cost. Madin could have resigned over the issue, but faced with an authoritative City Architect who had been instructed to cut costs, his acquiescence is understandable.
Sometimes relations break down because the financial situation has deteriorated since the architect’s contract was signed. I suspect this is the case with New Street Gateway, or to be more specific, ‘Grand Central’, the retail element of the station scheme. The architect’s original design involved cutting a huge hole in the roof of the old Palasades Shopping Centre and constructing a glazed skylight to keep the weather out. We have seen the computer-generated images – strong swooping white ribs in the style of Art Nouveau holding the curvaceous panels of glazing. It’s obviously of a piece with the architect’s design for the stainless steel cladding on the outside and the wavy suspended ceiling slats of the new Ticket Hall.
But, for whatever reason, the client, Network Rail, now wants the skylight to be constructed in tensioned fabric. This would certainly be cheaper and easier to construct, but not as durable as the rigid structure proposed by the architects. The Millennium Dome was designed in this way but from the start Richard Rogers designed it as a low-cost structure that was only expected to last 25 years.
The lack of clear explanation from Network Rail for the architect’s resignation could indicate that the entire project is in financial difficulties. It’s a bad sign when the cladding that goes round the corner at Stephenson Street has still not been fixed to the steel frame. And round the grand entrance below the new John Lewis store the skirt appears to stop altogether. The design of the cladding is extremely complex and expensive to make and erect. The difficulties involved in wrapping it round an awkwardly shaped 1960s concrete building are enormous. Carrying out the work in phases and without disrupting the rail service adds a layer of complexity and uncertainty that contractors normally try to avoid. Costs must be very hard to control and it would come as no surprise to hear that the project was in danger of running over budget. Indeed it’s hard to see how the cost of such a large and complicated project could have been accurately predicted in the first place.
Meanwhile, the trains come and go much as before.